If there was one thing 2020 taught me, it’s that there’s a value to having boundaries.
The great crises of 2020 made the world collapse inward. Interactions and daily life moved to the internet in a way that even people like myself–no stranger to the digital world–found disruptive.
The internet is a land without boundaries. People have fought back against these boundaries, doing digital detox routines and leaving smartphones turned off during daily life, but 2020 made that even less feasible than it had been in an increasingly connected world.
One solution to this is to build boundaries, and not just in the digital sphere.
Burn the Bridges, then Burn the Rivers
I’ve allowed myself to explore the more disagreeable side of my personality over the last year. I’ve gone from striving to be honest to being brutally honest, which is a heck of a change.
Author’s note: I’m not trying to claim some great virtue here. I still deflect and wheedle around things I don’t want to admit, and that’s a vice I shall continue to wrestle with.
One thing that I discovered is that it’s a good idea to rid yourself of no-win relationships. Getting more honest with people sometimes revealed that all we really were doing was simply exchanging pleasantries that neither of us really felt.
Rather than fight, one of the best ideas when confronting something that is leading you to be dishonest is to disengage from it entirely.
This can be interpersonal, but it can also be relationships between you and the world.
For instance, as part of my diet I’ve largely cut out sugar and “cheap carbs” that I habitually overeat.
It’s not enough to leave it around and say that it’s for a special occasion. Everything’s a special occasion from the perspective of someone who wants something that’s exclusive to special occasions. I don’t even have it in my house. I don’t let myself be in places where I have free access to things I shouldn’t eat.
And when I can’t create that environment, it’s a lot easier to maintain those habits.
One thing that I discovered over the past year is that it’s really easy to let your relationships become dysfunctional.
Especially when every relationship has an always-present online component, it’s easy to find yourself in situations where you’re looking at a breakdown of boundaries.
And sometimes it’s best to let people go.
Think about what your connection to someone is and how much you improve their lives. Think about what their connection to you is, and how much they improve your life.
If someone’s adding some net positive somehow, then by all means keep that relationship.
But one of the dark design elements of the modern internet is that everything attempts to hijack our brains. There’s a function in there somewhere that I call the “bigger numbers are better numbers” flaw.
Usually, there’s a benefit to having a lot of things. Having five dollars is better than having two dollars. We’re wired to think that having fifty dollars is a lot better than having five dollars, and it is over the long term.
But all relationships are long term. If you have fifty relationships you’re not necessarily any more likely to get stuff from them than you would if you had five, and you’re doing less for them than you would otherwise.
But you can have fifty relationships fairly easily. The exact number of relationships you can have just varies on your personality and your situation. When I taught five classes, I had literally hundreds of relationships between my students, colleagues, and friends.
But most of those relationships were temporary and professional.
The (Inter)personal Touch
I’ve never let my students become my social media friends. But I’ve had a lot of acquaintances accrue around myself.
Sometimes these are fine. When I meet people through my writing, I value these connections because they’re based on mutual interests. But that’s a relationship that exists within the context of mutual benefit.
I found that cutting back on my personal social media networks was great. By limiting myself to just seeing posts from people I actually have ties to, I give myself fewer excuses to binge on updates that are entirely devoid of meaning.
Another question here is what content you want to surround yourself with. I don’t dissociate from people because I disagree with them.
But there is a value in noise reduction, and that value doubles when you’re getting flooded with content that disrupts your life.
The obvious (and safely neutral) example is this:
I never play games on my phone or the sort of social games that pressure you to share updates from them.
If I see someone’s posts on social media are these posts, I mute them or unfriend/follow/subscribe from them.
I’ve extended this to any “unserious” posts, because I don’t waste time on social media. I’m there to keep connected to people, not see funny cat videos (which I am more than capable of finding on my own).
Cutting the Chaff
I also watch my media consumption and other time-sinks. I can’t recall watching a whole movie since theaters closed, and the only television I watch is news, and rarely that.
I’ve pruned a lot of what I refer to as non-social media, things like Twitter or Discord so I stay in touch with what I need without wasting time on things I don’t or being bothered by notifications and updates about things that don’t matter.
Like with the people I’m acquainted with who don’t use social media in a way that connects us, having these be limited saves a lot of time and keeps me focused on what really matters.
I’m trying to write a million words this year, and time management is important, but even before I set up goals to achieve having the increased focus meant more time on what I actually enjoyed doing.
There’s an old Biblical saying about how the recipient of your effort is what you really worship. I don’t think I’m necessarily the best model for prioritizing what’s important, but when you think about time with the awareness that every decision is a sacrifice of every other decision, having a lot of things you don’t value eat at your peripheral self is a bad idea.
This also comes with the idea of social media. I’ve been blessed by others treating me well most of my life. I’ve had a few people who haven’t, but by far the rule has been that I’ve gotten off easy with my social interactions.
However, I’ve discovered the joy of blocking and muting negative internet strangers. If someone’s interacting with you negatively, it’s not doing them any favors if you sit and take it. It only builds up an affinity for antisocial behaviors in them and has costs for you, so don’t.
Sticking With It
I get bored. That’s one of the moral weaknesses I have. Sometimes I want to waste time on social media or watching random cat videos or playing fifteen hours of video games when I should be working on a book.
What I’ve found helpful–in addition to the “absolutely cut bad things out of your life” approach–is to pursue deliberate value.
Part of my goal with my million word year is to encourage myself to hit that deliberate value. I don’t want to be giving myself lots of opportunities for weakness.
I already listened to a book this year (Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression, which was both an odd choice and not something I found too appealing), and that gave me a lot more value and good use from my time than I would have gotten from video games or the social media machine.
Remember that leisure can be purposeful. There’s a distinction between boredom and leisure time, and it’s sort of like the difference between watching TV and watching a favorite show.
Sitting in front of the TV for an afternoon is often a recipe for regret.
Watching a favorite show gives a boost.
The distinction: we do one because we’re avoiding other things, and we do the other because we are pursuing something.
Pursue value in your leisure, and it’s not wasted time.
I didn’t really work on a lot of stuff that I would like to have worked on in the second half of 2020.
That’s not to say I wasted the year. I wrote most of a novel in November and finished the novel for my MFA capstone program in October (pending revisions). I gave myself a nice “vacation” (of staying home and not feeling guilty about it) in December.
But when you really apply the boundaries for your life, you get what you want. Unless you have an impossible goal, having a system set up to separate what you care about from what you don’t is a surefire way to make progress in that direction.
My resolution for this upcoming year is to keep those boundaries strong. I want to take the things that don’t matter from my life and set them aside so I can become a better man, and so I can accomplish what I am set here to achieve.